On an internship application I skimmed over recently, one of the essay prompts asked me this: “Explain the importance of _____ in today’s society.” Several words immediately came to mind. Love, respect, empathy. Accessibility and accountability. Grassroots organizing. Healing.
But as I put my pen down, I realized that perhaps “grief” was not the right word. I thought about how many of us have faced more than enough grief to last a lifetime — a grief stemming not only from loss but also from silence and injustice. Many have faced grief spanning months, years and generations — some even since the birth of our nation. Some have been born into, and have left, this world carrying a grief I will never be able to understand or attest to.
As I revised this sentence, I then reserved the word “grief” for a more nuanced form: “grieving.” The word as a verb, as a process, as a doing unto oneself … To be grieved. To respond to something that has caused intense distress and sorrow. To be arrested by a conviction for action, one which is born of an anguish that cannot be neglected and should not be prolonged but must only be resolved.
It grieves me to think about a lot of things. It grieves me to think about those whom I may have hurt, however pure my intentions may have been. It grieves me to think about the problematic habits of my own Korean-American community that have been normalized. It grieves me to think about the moments in which I have chosen to assume the safe role of a bystander rather than be an ally. It grieves me to think about the often-painful and still-uncorrected history that I have lived through and thus, ultimately contributed to writing.
But are we, the American public and especially those who lead this nation, grieved?
Does it grieve us to think about our choice to incarcerate almost 120,000 Japanese Americans in the name of “military security” in 1942? Does it grieve us to think about the racial slurs hurled at these families, the blinds drawn on train rides to these camps for protection from onlookers who sought to attack them? Does it grieve us to think that the Supreme Court ruled against Fred Korematsu — who refused to abide by the government’s orders to relocate to a camp — and still has yet to officially overturn the decision? Does it grieve us to think about the racialized fear and hysteria that we have, and have had, the capacity to hold?
It may grieve us. But does it grieve us enough to refuse employing the very same tactics of anti-Japanese sentiment during World War II against Muslims and Muslim Americans today, only rewording the guise of “military threat” to that of a “national terror threat?” Did it grieve the Supreme Court who, despite their repudiation of the Korematsu ruling, still voted to uphold the analogously racist Muslim travel ban in 2018?
Does it grieve us to think about what took place on Jan. 6 of this year? Does it grieve us to think about a faith in white supremacy so strong that it would drive a group of people to scale the walls and smash the windows of the Capitol? Does it grieve us to think about those present in the Capitol building, streets of Washington, D.C. and even onlookers across the country seized in a moment of intense fear and vulnerability? Does it grieve us to think about the threatened democracy of a nation once, and still, divided?
It may grieve us. But does it grieve us enough to hold the one responsible for what took place this day accountable? Did it grieve Congress enough to impeach Donald Trump again? Did it grieve Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who, despite his acknowledgement and condemnation of the former president’s incitement of the insurrection, still voted to acquit Trump?
We must be grieved by these traumas and by a host of others that continue in scrolls of unspeakable horrors and still-silenced stories that have yet to surface. And if we do claim to be grieved by our wrongdoings, it is difficult to believe that those in power, who are able to correct or prevent the very pain they inflict, are nearly grieved enough. If the darkness of our nation did, in fact, grieve us, we would never dare to allow the same patterns of history to be left unchecked, forgotten and repeated again.
This is not to say that a vote in an impeachment trial, or the decision of a single Supreme Court case, or even the rewriting of a history textbook can reverse our collective wrongs and unclench the hatred that chokes our nation — these manifestations would only be attempts at undoing injustice after the fact. This is not to discount the efforts of those who evidently have been grieved by such events — who have fought, marched and organized tirelessly to create a world in which it is love, and not a repairing of grieved hurt, that moves us forward.
But as I witness the unfolding of history and the precedents that ultimately are being set by our collective nation, as I read into the past and look into the future, the question remains:
Are we grieved, as a nation? Have we ever been?
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